Role model

Unselfish and public-spirited Lei Feng makes a comeback

Role model

The ultimate good guy? Lei Feng

The Chinese have a remark – a regretful one – that the country has become a place where “it’s easy to do bad things and hard to do good ones.”

Tell that to Lei Feng, a celebrated soldier from the 1960s.

Or more pertinently – since Lei died in 1962 – tell it to Xing Huaqi, who has recently compiled a 200,000-character anthology of the writings of a man widely celebrated for his great ambition to be “a screw in the machine” of Chinese socialism.

Tell that, too, to the Education Ministry, which has been calling on schools to begin “Study Lei Feng” campaigns. That some people – many of them sceptics from outside China – suspect that Lei was a figment of the propagandists’ imagination rarely comes into the discussion (see WiC6).

The prodigious literary output of the Maoist hero and inveterate do-gooder is certainly striking.

Lei wrote at least three novels, nine pieces of prose, 12 articles, 18 speeches, 30 poems and 330 diary entries – all between 1958 and 1962, the publisher, Sino Culture Press, announced last week.

Orphaned at 7, Lei began work at a steel factory aged 18. At 20 he joined the army, before falling dead at 22 when he was hit by a falling telegraph pole knocked over by a truck (Lei was helping the driver out, naturally).

An early death always helps in legend-making, of course. And Lei stayed on message right up to the end. In a diary entry dated just five days before his fatal accident, he wrote, “From now on, I will love and respect people more, always learn from the masses with a humble heart like a primary school student, and be a servant of the people.”

Twenty five years ago, there was a similar resurgence of interest in Lei Feng’s life. But the Christian Science Monitor reported that revival of Lei’s spirit related more to something else he exemplified: unquestioning obedience to the state. Today, Lei seems to be making headlines as an antidote to the perceptions of growing selfishness and cynicism in Chinese society.

“Why study Lei Feng?” asked one study group on weibo. “Because we really need him. If 18 cold people hadn’t walked past little Wang Yue, would we need to promote Lei Feng?” (Wang Yue was the 2 year-old child in Guangdong ignored by passersby after being run over last year. Her death caused widespread soul-searching. See WiC127.)

The website Seeing Red in China quoted another fan: “Lei Feng was a good man, a kind man. He helped many people, and did so many good things. I think people should follow his example. My teacher just told me that we should be helpful like him.” But others have questioned whether Lei Feng is really the best role model that China can find for a more complex, unequal and fast-changing society. Others took aim at the Chinese elite in their criticism, and some of their double standards.

“Your children have emigrated to overseas countries, and you want me to learn from Lei Feng here in China. The milk I drink is carcinogenic, you want me to learn from Lei Feng. You sit in luxurious cars, live in villas. I eat gutter oil, my kids drinks fake milk powder. You still want me to learn from Lei Feng. Do you want me to die early as Lei Feng did?” raged Zuoyeben, another weibo user, in a comment forwarded tens of thousands of times.

Said Liu Binyan, a famous journalists in the 1980s, “I don’t think Lei Feng is at all a perfect model. He has serious, even fatal defects. His imperfection lies in the fact that he only follows orders from above,” the Christian Science Monitor reported.

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